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A comment Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert made about the Phoenix Suns and guard Devin Booker in January was reportedly perceived as a slight against teammate Donovan Mitchell by those close to Mitchell.
According to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, Gobert said the following about Utah’s status as a title contender and what he felt set championship-caliber teams apart from the Jazz:
“We know that when the playoffs come, we’re not just going to flip a switch and all of the sudden communication, all of the sudden be able to stay in front of our man, all of the sudden be able to rebound. When I watch some of these other teams like the Suns or the Warriors, for example, those guys are a step ahead of us in terms of winning habits. I feel like they take every game personally.
“You can tell Devin Booker is playing his ass off defensively. I’ve been watching him compared to, like, two years ago. Guys like that, they buy in and you can tell that they take pride in playing defense, stopping their man , doing whatever they can defensively to stop the other team and be part of a winning culture.”
Per MacMahon, the comments “made some within Mitchell’s inner circle seethe” due to the belief that Gobert “violated locker room protocols by publicly pointing a finger at his teammate.”
Gobert never said Mitchell’s name, but the apparent perception was that he was calling out Mitchell since he and Booker play the same position.
During the aftermath of Gobert’s comments, several Jazz players made their feelings known about what Gobert said and the meaning behind it.
Publicly, Mitchell didn’t take any offense to it, saying: “I’m not really concerned about it. At the end of the day, we’ve got to all find ways to get better. That’s really it. We all have individual ways of doing it, and his just happens to be this way. So, cool.”
Jazz forward Royce O’Neale said: “Anything [Gobert] says, he doesn’t mean bad by it. [But] You don’t have to say those comments [to the media].”
Guard Jordan Clarkson later pointed out, “It ain’t like [Gobert] pointed out a big man or nothing,” furthering the perception that Gobert may have been taking a shot at Mitchell.
For his part, Gobert said he simply wanted to help all of his teammates be better:
“Sometimes I can be clumsy with what I say, but I always speak my mind and it always comes from a place of wanting to win. Like I said to Don privately, everything that I do on the court is to help him be better. All the things that I do to get him open, to communicate with him, to try to push him defensively.
Gobert’s comments might not have gotten any publicity under normal circumstances, but he and Mitchell have had issues in the past.
MacMahon noted that Gobert and Mitchell didn’t speak to each other for months at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic because of Gobert’s handling of the situation.
Gobert was the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19, followed by Mitchell. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported at the time that Gobert carelessly touched his teammates’ belongings before the diagnosis in an apparent sign that he wasn’t taking things seriously.
Mitchell later admitted he was angry at Gobert at first and said it “took a while for me to kind of cool off.”
On top of those issues, the Jazz have failed to parlay strong regular seasons into playoff success.
Utah has reached the playoffs in each of the past six seasons but hasn’t made it past the second round. That includes this season, as the Jazz fell 4-2 in their first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks, getting eliminated in a 98-96 Game 6 loss on Thursday.
Per MacMahon, opposing teams have been circling and waiting to see if Mitchell might request a trade during the offseason.
Mitchell hasn’t suggested publicly that he wants to be traded, but if his relationship with Gobert is irreparable, it’s possible the three-time All-Star could be playing elsewhere next season.